When Awareness in Action was starting out there was a lot that I did not know about marketing and publicity. I was fine on content but when it came to promoting my work, it was hard.
Happily, there were friends and colleagues who were enthusiastic about my work and were willing to help me. So, I found myself one spring Saturday at Nottingham University preparing to give two half-day public workshops. I was psyched and mega prepared with power-points, handouts and a cosy room set-up. There was a good view from our meeting room to the car park and my colleague and I watched in eager anticipation as a steady stream of people parked their cars and headed for our room. I remember wondering why so many of them had brought their kids along but all was explained as we watched them head in through the entrance and into a nearby room that was hosting a drama class for children!
Maybe you can guess how this story unfolded? We ended up with one participant, who worked in the same office as my colleague. It was a crushing blow and all my insecurities about being able to make Awareness in Action a success rose up and threatened to overwhelm me. A mean-spirited and accusing voice began a commentary in my head pointing out all the reasons why I was going to fail and listing my numerous shortcomings. I felt sick.
Many of us struggle with the critical voice in our heads that is continuously undermining us. Sometimes it sounds like a disapproving teacher, or an irate parent. In any event, it’s hard to hear any useful message in the barrage of negativity we throw at ourselves. If we combine this with the conviction that unless we are doing everything perfectly, we are failing, then you have a toxic brew. That is what I faced that morning in Nottingham.
Self-compassion, on the other hand, is the ability to manage our challenges and worries with kindness, rather than criticism. As we learn to view what happens to us without a running commentary on how we need things to be different from how they are, we are more able to calm down and get things into better perspective. Gradually we can see that the kind of problems we face are pretty much part of everyone’sexperience and we are not being singled out as a particularly hopeless case. This helps us to manage our reactions better and to cope with more humour and less self-criticism.
The role of meditation
The whole purpose and meaning of meditation is about understanding how our minds work, and learning how to come home to ourselves. The startling truth that we are often not ‘at home’ with ourselves was born out in 2010. Gilbert and Killingsworth from Harvard University designed a smart phone app. At random intervals during the day participants of their study were contacted and asked to say what they were doing, if they were thinking about what they were doing and if they were happy. The findings were an eye-opener. For 46.9% of our waking hours we are thinking about something different from what we are doing and no, we are not happy.
It is during periods of rumination that our worries and critical voices can run riot. There is nothing that our minds are incapable of thinking about, or imagining and we bring the full weight of all mind wandering into our present moment and obliterate the richness and vitality of what is actually going on for us right now. We are constantly looking to make ourselves comfortable and to manage our situation in the best way possible to bring that about. On the other hand, we certainly want to avoid anything unpleasant or threatening and so we are also busy trying to run away from, or to avoid unpleasantness.
This certainly describes my feelings of panic facing that empty meeting room. I wanted to run away and find a safe place to hide—or I wanted a miracle that would suddenly produce a room full of people all ready to start working with me.
As soon as we begin to meditate this edginess starts to settle. By enabling us to rest our minds just as they are, in the present moment we naturally cut through our restless search for superficial comfort, as well as the threat of not being able to fix things as we want.
Fortunately, by the time of my disaster workshop story I had been meditating for quite some time and although the initial impact of the disappointment was very strong, I was able to come back from it quite quickly.
Meditation helps us to build resilience, rather than avoidance. When we sit to meditate we experience all kinds of thoughts and emotions that come and go in our minds. Because we are not distracting ourselves by doing a bunch of other stuff at the same time, we can slowly come to see that these thoughts are transient. We do not need to define ourselves by the thoughts in our minds at any particular moment.
Imagine your mind is like the sky—clear, sparking, infinite. At some point clouds of various kinds will travel across the sky. These clouds are like our thoughts and emotions. What can we notice about how clouds travel across the sky? They come and go and leave no lasting impression. Heavy thunder clouds to do not damage the sky. Pretty, fluffy summer clouds do not enhance it. When the clouds pass, the sky is still clear, sparkling and infinite.
It’s the same with our minds.
As we learn to view our experience in this way we can recover from events that are disappointing and upsetting with less difficulty. Although my reaction to the absence of participants for my workshop was acute, it did not bite deeply into my mind. I still remember it with regret but also with quite a lot of humour and acceptance. There was no cosmic plot to show me that I was incapable of starting up a business—just inexperience and a lack of marketing skills. These things can be learnt more easily than overcoming the trauma of falling prey to one’s inner critic.
Connecting with your soft spot
There are many more ways in which meditation and self-compassion go hand-in-hand but I will just touch on one more here.
Because meditation helps to shift us away from too much focus on doing at the expense of being, it helps us to reduce our rush towards continuous achievement and the goal of perfection. We can find satisfaction in simply being at ease with ourselves, well in our own minds. In this way, meditation helps us to connect with our soft spot, our natural tenderness of heart. This is our wellspring of kindness—a kindness we can learn to apply to our own coping skills and to tame the harsh tone of our inner critic.
If you are interested in self- compassion and would like to go further, join Maureen for this online course.
Start date: 5 January 2017
Registration now open